The Houston Dynamo defied most expectations in finishing fourth in the Western Conference and earning an MLS Cup playoff berth with ease, but they now shoulder most of the pressure entering Match 3 at home against Real Salt Lake on Saturday.
The Dynamo have never trailed in the best-of-three Round One series, and yet find themselves one game away from elimination after losing on penalty kicks after a 1-1 draw at RSL on Monday night.
Between earning a conference best-tying 11 regular-season wins at home and capturing the 2023 U.S. Open Cup title, the ceiling for this team feels much higher than at the beginning of the season, Houston coach Ben Olsen admitted.
"My expectations were to make the playoffs," Olsen said of when he first took charge of the Dynamo before this season. "The expectations of the team now are greater than I thought they would be at this moment. That means we're moving in the right direction. The expectations are probably that we should win this game because we're at home, so that's great. That's what we've signed on for, and that's where we want to push this club."
Amine Bassi has scored in each match for the Dynamo, and Hector Herrera also found the net for Houston in a 2-1 win in Match 1. But Bassi also was saved from the penalty spot in regulation — before scoring on the rebound — and failed to convert again in the tiebreak.
Houston will have to deal with the challenge of RSL forward Cristian Arango, who missed the opening match with an injury but helped turn the tide of Match 2 after coming on as a second-half substitute.
Fifth-seeded Salt Lake eventually leveled through Jefferson Savarino and may be able to get more minutes on Saturday from Arango, who scored six times in 11 appearances after making a return to MLS this summer. He was the leading scorer on the 2022 MLS Cup champion LAFC squad before a short stint at Pachuca in Liga MX.
"I think when Chicho comes into the game, not only does it bring belief into the stadium, but it's infectious within the group," RSL coach Pablo Mastroeni said. "It's something that we haven't had for probably a month now with Chicho, but really excited with his fitness levels, and the runs he was making, his pressing ability, heading into (Match) 3."
—Field Level Media